Merkel’s Pyrrhic Victory

28 Sep

A couple of people asked me for my take on the German elections. This is my view, but YMMV. I’m not an expert on German politics and most of my sources are second or third-hand.

Quite a few people on Facebook have been comparing Angela Merkel to Hilary Clinton over the past couple of months. Personally, I disagree with the comparison. Merkel has a great deal more in common – and the irony of this is darkly amusing – with Theresa May. Both politicians made staggering errors of judgement and only escaped the consequences of their mistakes because of the weaknesses of their enemies.

Right now, as I understand the situation, Merkel and the CDU will need to go into coalition with a number of other German parties, all of which have no reason whatsoever to make matters easy for her. Her former allies in the SDP have already decided that they will not remain in alliance with her, at least partly because Merkel cost them a considerable number of seats. (In some ways, this appears to be akin to the UK’s brief alliance between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, which cost the latter heavily in the elections.) As the other parties have good reason to share the belief that Merkel’s policies cost them heavily too, they’ll demand very steep prices for their support.

Merkel will thus have to balance a very unwieldy coalition government, composed of parties that have widely divergent aspirations. This is not a recipe for stable government at, perhaps, the worst possible time. Worse, Merkel’s own party – like Theresa May’s – is likely to blame her for their losses too. I suspect that a number of senior politicians are expecting Merkel to form the government, then step aside. Given that Merkel has actually, in her own way, become as divisive as Donald Trump, this may be the best possible outcome. However, I don’t expect her to leave peacefully. Merkel – unlike Margaret Thatcher – does not appear to realise that she is a problem for her party.

The joker in the deck is the rise of the AfD – a right-wing party that won a considerable percentage of votes. (Quite why this surprised anyone is beyond me, for reasons I will discuss below.) Indeed, the one thing that unites the mainstream parties is a determination to keep the AfD out of power. The AfD will therefore find itself frozen out of the political mainstream, as long as Merkel’s coalition stays together. This is both good and bad for the AfD. On one hand, if it isn’t part of the governing coalition, it can avoid taking the blame for any future problems; on the other hand, if it is unable to deliver anything to its voters, those voters may slip away to political parties smart enough to reshape themselves to suit the public mood. It will be interesting to see if the AfD can build on its success or fall back into irrelevance.

Merkel herself is a serious liability. (In some ways, this is akin to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.) She has been in power long enough to have a very checkered record on a number of subjects, ranging from European unity to immigration. From a political point of view, Merkel’s decision to allow migrants to enter Germany was disastrous, a problem made worse by her refusal to admit that it had been a mistake. Her government showed some dangerously illiberal sentiments in the months afterwards – and still does, to some extent – and played a major role in weakening German faith in its government. Outside Germany, she is regarded with some suspicion. Merkel’s apparent belief that she has the right to force Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary to take migrants only reinforces concerns that the EU will become a de facto dictatorship. Indeed, one can argue that the German migrant crisis boosted BREXIT. It did not bode well for the future.

The core of the problem is that nationalism is making a significant comeback in Western Europe. (Eastern Europe was always more nationalistic, a legacy of Soviet domination.) On one hand, the EU is a bureaucratic (and out of touch) nightmare that only a bureaucrat or a politician could love. As I have said before, a Texan and a New Yorker might have something (being American) in common, but a Frenchman and a German do not. The EU simply does not inspire much in the way of loyalty. And on the other hand, mainstream political parties are simply unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there are problems that need to be fixed. Instead, they chose to blame the voters for daring to have doubts.

This drove voters towards the more extreme parties, which do acknowledge the problems. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s ratings skyrocketed after he pointed the finger at immigration. The same is true of right-wing parties across Europe. When times are good, people are happy to share; when times are hard, people want their concerns put first. And calling voters who have very valid concerns about immigration racists only made matters worse. Voters who feel threatened do not want to be talked down to by someone who has security on call, 24/7. As a cynical friend of mine put it, “Merkel put the interests of migrants ahead of the German population – and it is the German population who can vote!”

In the end, it is difficult to see how the European Union can survive without significant adjustment. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be any awareness amongst the elite that the EU needs to reform. Merkel – or her successor – will find himself torn between the need for major surgery or allowing problems to fester until they finally explode.

Merkel’s victory, in short, may prove to be nothing of the sort.

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23 Responses to “Merkel’s Pyrrhic Victory”

  1. Sprout September 28, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

    I kind of remember her admitting it was a mistake, been a while and too lazy to go digging (let someone else do it ;P). Merkel has indeed become divisive, but she isn’t a pure negative; she still has support.

    • Veraenderer September 29, 2017 at 8:26 am #

      She is actually still the most popular german politician, which mean either you like her or you hate from the depths of your heart ^^

  2. Pyo September 28, 2017 at 9:41 pm #

    Merkel’s support is overwhelming, which was the main issue (aside from immigration) for her this election: long-term CDU supporters felt safe in “protest voting”, which is in turn one of the main reasons the AfD got the votes it did.

    AfD votes will be back next election, but they’ll almost certainly lose support in between. Like many protest parties, they’ll achieve nothing, and lose voters once they realize that nothing actually changed.

    The SPD really had no choice and nothing Merkel could have done would have pretended them from slipping away. They need distance from the CDU if they want to win the next election.
    Luckily for her, the traditional CDU ally is back in the form of the FDP. So it’s actually not that big a deal, even if they also have to incorporate the Greens (this however has been done before on state-level, so it’s proven to be workable).

    This election, from a German point of view, was fairly uninteresting in its predictability. Next election, Merkel won’t be eligible anymore, and that’s when German politics will become more interesting again.

    Also, please don’t confuse British attitude for the EU with German attitude for it. BREXIT actually caused positive appreciation for the EU in Germany, much more so than anything Merkel did might have damaged it (which she didn’t. Immigration damaged Merkel, not the EU, as it was seen as “her project”). Support for the EU is pretty strong across the population.

    • Veraenderer September 29, 2017 at 8:30 am #

      I agree mostly. I think the Jamaica Coalition will be more problematic and I would add that it could be that the AfD splits itself and that there were also SPD voters which protest voted the AfD.

  3. Big Ben September 28, 2017 at 11:36 pm #

    This darned short-sighted / short attention span / instant gratification world …
    All these “extremist” candidates and politicians – way to the right or left – talk a good game, they say what their supporters want to hear.
    And then they get in office and?…..

    Repeal Obamacare? Hilarious failure across the Republican board.

    Comprehensive immigration reform? Nah, just keep all the riff-raff out and build a wall ….

    Build the wall? Nope, and the Mexicans damn sure are not gonna pay for it, either.

    Tax reform? Not yet, and the current amorphous plan is basically a multi-trillion tax break for corporations and the wealthy.

    Cut the deficit and reduce national debt? Some estimates say the current proposed tax reform plan will add two trillion to the debt over the next ten years.

    Drain the swamp? It has literally never been deeper and murkier. Private chartered jets on the taxpayers dime, anyone?

    Blame Hillary for using private email accounts and servers?… Turns out several of the highest figures in the current administration do the same thing.

    Pull out of the Paris Accord? The entire world ridicules us and categorically refuses to renegotiate.

    Threaten to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and then ask North Korea to enter into a similar scheme?
    Good grief.

    These extremists talk a good game and promise everything for everyone, but across the globe seem fundamentally incapable of doing the one thing folks elect them to do.

    Govern. Get stuff done.
    Nothing else matters.

    • Andrew Jones September 29, 2017 at 6:24 am #

      I don’t think the people who voted for Trump have the same view as you of the events. Their view of the world is different enough that you mistake a prime motive. You suggest they want to “get stuff done”, and as much as they’d like to see their pet legislations, a big driver for them is “stop doing stuff”.

      • utabintarbo September 29, 2017 at 2:28 pm #

        ^This,^

        If not “rollback the stupid shit from the last 25 years”.

  4. Jack Hudler September 29, 2017 at 2:09 am #

    A Texan having something in common with a Yankee? Them’s fight’n words!

  5. moderateGuy September 29, 2017 at 2:38 am #

    “only reinforces concerns that the EU will become a de facto dictatorship”. Worse that EU is becoming a GERMAN dictatorship; which is totally unacceptable outside the Franco-German-Benelux core.

    • Veraenderer September 29, 2017 at 8:21 am #

      There are reasons why I advocate a core EU basicly France, Germany and Benelux become one state and the rest of the EU stays as it is (except with a European border control at the borders of the EU) with the option to join the core EU state if they want.

      Furthermore at the moment it seems like France will be leading the EU political in the next years, so a german dictarship is unlikely.

      I also think that what you think of a EU dictarship is more like a conflict of ideas there are some countrys and politicians which are interested to transform the EU to the United States of Europe, while some others are more interested in a loser cooperation. This is leading to a state in the EU where some think that the EU is dictatorial while others (like me) think that the EU is to powerless and that some countries are slowing us down.

  6. PhilippeO September 29, 2017 at 6:58 am #

    > All these “extremist” candidates and politicians – way to the right or left – talk a good game, they say what their supporters want to hear.

    Agree, for all its fault the ‘establishment’ successfully have 70 years of peace, progress, and prosperity. The weakening of ‘center’ for radicalism, none of which successfully build new majority coalition to secure governing is disaster.

    in the end, they couldn’t do nothing to stop globalization, Internet, automatization, or people movement from declining area. They only have ‘slogan’ without concrete plan to do anything significant.

  7. Veraenderer September 29, 2017 at 8:08 am #

    A few mistakes:
    The SDP does not exist, you meant the SPD.

    Ironicly Merkel is actually very popular, without Merkel the CDU would lose many voters to the SPD:
    https://bundestagswahl-2017.com/angela-merkel/

    A good part of the voters for the AFD are protest voters which actually don’t want the AFD to be in power but to wake the other parties up.

    Furthermore the AFD is at the moment in a intern power struggle, it could even be that up to 30 delegates of the AFD split themself up.

  8. Anarchymedes September 29, 2017 at 11:20 am #

    ‘The core of the problem is that nationalism is making a significant comeback in Western Europe.’
    And that will be the EU’s downfall – and no amount of ‘adjustment’ will save it. And IMO this is sad, because, in fact, a Frenchman and a German may very well have a lot in common, especially the younger ones. Well, maybe not as much as a Texan and a New Yorker, but still. The problem is that even if they both like the same thing, the Frenchman will like the French ‘same thing,’ and the German will like the German ‘same thing.’ Nationalism is merely the identity politics come full circle: concentrating on what separates people, rather than on what unites them; celebrating differences, rather than similarities. It’s easier to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, so let’s lock our pond up, isolate it, and then convince ourselves we’re Orcas – because there is no one to challnge it. In Russia, and some other former Soviet countries, there is a bit of nostalgia for the Iron Curtain, I hear: behind it, it was easy to convince oneself of any b/s. And even more recently: just watch DPRK.
    Although none of this justfies throwing the country’s doors open for those who have the genuine differences. Who are, quite simply, enemies: who are fiercely opposed to all our values, traditions, and goals, and who would weave and duck, but never yield an inch. The problem is not how many we’re letting in; the problem is who they are – and the far right and nationalists exploit the ease with which this distinction can be blurred.

    • Pyo September 29, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

      I’m not yet convinced the process is irreversible. Currently, there’s a lot of hysteria about immigrants around. But this, too, shall pass (once people realize that it doesn’t actually collapse Western civilization or anything).

      Thing is, for years politicians were quite happy to blame whatever was uncomfortable on the nebulous EU (which is run by the exact same politicians, but it was a good excuse!), so, naturally, people have a fairly negative imagine of it.
      Now that the mood is fairly bad, they try and fix it, but learn that people don’t forget the last ten years of fearmongering within three weeks. It does bad things to politicians credibility, this entire turn-around.

      But this stuff near always happens cyclically. Currently we’re on an up of nationalism or getting there. It’ll go down again, too. The younger generations are already less invested in this as the older ones anyway (if only below 40s had voted, Brexit vote would have failed, for example).

      • chrishanger October 2, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

        Part of the problem is that the people in charge of fixing it are the people who made it go wrong in the first place.

        Chris

  9. Drowe September 29, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    The coalition between the CDU and SPD is the equivalent of a coalition between Tories and Labour, not like a coalition between Tories and the Liberal Democrats. There was no real opposition, they even had to change the law to at least give the opposition the power to hold the government accountable with boards of inquiry, since they had less than 25% of total MPs. That is one of the main reasons why both major parties lost so many votes.

    The migrant crisis alienated a lot of votes, primarily in East Germany, many of whom voted for the AfD, but a large share also voted for them out of protest or for tactical reasons. Everyone knew that no party would form a coalition with the AfD and no one wanted another coalition between the CDU and SPD. That’s why the FDP (libdems) also made large gains. The election result ensured that the SPD would not be in a coalition with the CDU, because otherwise the AfD would be the largest opposition party, which would give them too much power. And while the Greens and the FDP will not agree to easily and try to get Merkel to make as many concessions as possible, both sides know that ultimately this is the only option other than new elections.

    I think this is actually the best possible result, the Greens will want to push more environmentally friendly policies, but currently they are led by realists, so they won’t go overboard. The FDP will want to deregulate businesses and possibly seek to lower taxes, they also have a strong stance on pro free speech issues and are against affirmative action.

    Merkel is not really a liability, while her approval has suffered, she is still very popular. From a political point of view, Merkel really didn’t have much room to maneuver in 2015, either decision would have had negative political consequences. On one hand you have hundreds of thousands of migrants with all their consequences on the other hand the potential damage to Germany’s image and the backlash from those who did support her decision as there was, and still is, quite a lot of support there. Also she did admit it was a mistake, and has been backpedaling on this issue for quite a while now.

    About outside perspective of Merkel, that is always dependent on your viewpoint. From one point of view, you could say that membership in the EU comes both with rights and obligations, if individual nations only accept the rights and not the obligations, then the other members are indeed right to pressure them to meet their obligations. Another point of view might point out that other nations shouldn’t be required to pay for Merkel’s mistake. Both of those are valid points of view, and without any context it is hard to disagree with either one.

    You correctly identify nationalism as a core issue for the West, in particular the EU. But it is incorrect that a German and a Frenchman have nothing in common with each other. I would rather say that other than the language, there isn’t a much larger difference between a Texan and a New Yorker than between a Frenchman and a German. The same can be said for the Benelux and Austria, as well as Denmark and Sweden, this applies to a lesser extent to Italy, Spain and Portugal and even less to Greece. But not at all to Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary as well as all the other former communist nations. It was a mistake to accept them as member states, even if I understand the rationale of it. The reason for that is simple, the history since WW2 made it so close bonds between the Western nations formed, while the eastern European nations were cut off by the iron curtain. While in Britain that Western European identity may never have really taken hold, on the continent that isn’t the case. I feel like I have much more in common with someone from France or Sweden, than with someone from Poland or Hungary.

    Back to the election, the fact that the CDU got one of the worst results since WW2 made it very clear that the voters want a change, so calling it a victory for Merkel is misleading, however she personally does have the support of the population, and the only possible coalition does have a lot of popular support, more than the election result shows. Now it the job of the three parties to negotiate a coalition contact and move on. In my opinion this was the best possible result, even if it was fairly predictable.

  10. georgephillies September 30, 2017 at 3:48 am #

    The “CDU” is actually two parties, as the Bavarian Party is separate. Merkel also has questions coming from that direction.

  11. William Ameling October 1, 2017 at 8:01 am #

    The tactics of the Far Left in the USA and Europe are beginning to remind me a lot of the book “1984”. Where history, newspapers, monuments, names of past figures to be respected, etc. are subject to change as needed by them (the Far Left). Whenever there are change of policy and alliances at the top of the government, everything that contradicts it is erased or altered; and WOE to anyone who resists: jail and brainwashing, etc. I am trying to remember the exact title of the organization, was it Ministry of Truth (or something similar, it has been close to 50 years since I read it)?

  12. William Ameling October 1, 2017 at 8:56 pm #

    Since the Dallas School Board wants to remove Washington, Jefferson, etc from being taught in schools, forget Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University, etc. WHEN (not IF) are they (the Far left) going to want to rename the capital of the USA to something besides Washington, D.C. and take him off the dollar bill ??!! (or are they just going to edit the historical record about what he actually did ?)

    Since they seem to want to stop honoring any historical figures they did things that are bad according to their present day ideals, such as enslave their neighbors, own slaves, steal land from the local natives, fight their neighbors to conquer land, commit genocide, murder their rivals, steal their women, etc. Most of which has been done in every nation, religion, society, culture, and ethnic group around the world at some point in their history if you look back far enough. All or most of the former European colonies have had considerable internal and external violence since they were released from colony status after World War 2. In many cases their behavior has been worse their former colonial masters.

    Not only did Washington own slaves, to the Indians allied to the British during the American Revolution he was the “Town Burner” who ordered the destruction of their settlements. Yet he is the general/leader who won the Revolution and became our first President.

  13. William Ameling October 2, 2017 at 2:24 am #

    When we study Historical figures we need to study both the good and bad, and not let their bad deeds obscure their good deeds. We would not be here without their good deeds, and trying to forget them because of their bad deeds gives students a false idea of what happened in their history.

    • Pyo October 2, 2017 at 3:36 pm #

      What’s got any of that to do with Germany? We spend half our time in history classes discussing WWII. That’s not changing any time soon.

      If anything, it’s the far right here that might attempt to re-write some history books.

  14. William Ameling October 3, 2017 at 3:01 am #

    True the Far Right can display many of the same tactics and behavior patterns as the Far Left. Dissent is not tolerated, everyone who does not agree is an Enemy, rewrite history, etc. (They both do it). The problem with history as taught to school children, is that they do not learn the good and bad about the same person or event, it is usually all good or all bad. Most things like wars, particularly Civil Wars and Revolutions that last a long time, do so because there were a lot of people who supported both sides, and schools usually only teach about why one side won and the other side lost.

  15. William Ameling October 3, 2017 at 3:05 am #

    In many respects, I think that more attention should be paid to World War 1. It is what really messed up the 20th Century and set the stage for World War 2.

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